Friday, August 31, 2018

Spike Lee and the Birth of a Black Klansman

Fancy seeing a Spike Lee movie (or – better – a Spike Lee joint) in which the hero is a cop! Lee, has raised a few hackles in the African-American community by focusing not on police brutality against unarmed black men but on the heroics of some Colorado Springs cops (both black and white) who joined forces in the Seventies to strike a blow against white supremacists. Which is not to say that Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansman, has no contemporary resonance. Lee never lets us forget that the racist right-wingers he portrays in the film are still very much with us. (The specter of Charlottesville dramatically hangs over the movie, as doe rhetoric coming out of today’s White House.)

How to reconcile Lee’s personal politics with the demands of this story, based as it is on the real-life experiences of Colorado police detective Ron Stallworth? The key is to see Lee’s film, like the behavior of his real-life characters, as an exercise in role-playing. It’s hardly that Lee is insincere. It’s just that he’s many things: a political provocateur, a highly gifted filmmaker, an intellect who can see multiple sides of an issue, someone who values the opportunity to entertain as well as to enlighten. I’ve loved the early Spike Lee  movies, like the powerful Do the Right Thing, but over the years I’ve tended to lose interest.  In this new film, which was acclaimed at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Lee successfully combines fun with moral indignation, puckish comedy with high drama. It’s a brilliant performance.

 The spectacle of Lee juggling many masks with this film fits right in with the behavior of his characters. Stallworth (John David Washington) sometimes chafes at the distance between himself as an undercover police officer and the earnest young black-is-beautiful types with whom he associates when off duty. But he can gleefully pass himself off as a Ku Klux Klan aspirant because his telephone voice doesn’t betray his color. (As he confidently explains to his chief, he’s fluent in both the Queen’s English and jive.) Meanwhile Flip, the fellow officer chosen to represent Ron for in-person hang-outs with the Klan, turns out to be Jewish. In one of the film’s many striking moments, Flip (Adam Driver) ponders the fact that consorting with racists -- and being required to voice ugly racist sentiments himself -- has reminded him for the first time in his life of the ethnic background he’s always largely ignored. Suddenly, he muses, he can understand the need for heritage, for ritual. The word “ritual” stood out for me in this context, because the behavior of the white supremacists shows that they too need it, as a way to shore up their misgivings about their own failings. They’re a pretty sorry lot: a drunk, a restless soldier, an angry little man. That explains the appeal of donning a pointy hood and robe, and joining forces with like-minded others for a cross-burning. It’s essentially putting on a mask and playing a role, in order to convince the world that you’re more than you might seem.

Lee, as a filmmaker, fully knows the power of cinema to shape our conscious (and unconscious) minds. That’s why he brilliantly makes use of film clips from Gone With the Wind and (especially) Birth of a Nation, to explain the romanticism embedded in the white supremacist‘s all too black-and-white view of the world. He also has fun with the image of the African-American gangsta type, as embedded in blaxploitation films like Shaft and Superfly. How lucky we are to have someone of his caliber exploring our complicated interracial world.

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